December 29, 2015

Catching Up: Five Capsule Reviews

Below, you will find capsule reviews of some of the movies I neglected to write about this year. Most if not all of them are now available to rent or stream somewhere. In some cases, these are movies I felt conflicted about and as such struggled to find the words to describe them.

The Assassin. The most beautifully soporific movie experience of 2015. It’s a stunningly gorgeous picture you could hang in an art gallery, but make sure the seats are hard and uncomfortable, or the audience may find that it puts them to sleep. The director, Hou Hsaiao-Hsien, has every detail in place in recreating an 8th-century Chinese village (during the Tang Dynasty) where the people are beset by the coming assassin who’s sworn to kill her brother, one of the residents. There’s a gorgeous dance sequence, and it’s fun to behold all the little trinkets and bowls and other objects that populate this movie, but the film plods along with such deliberate languor that it feels like a punishment. Even the martial arts sequences, though well-choreographed, fail to breathe any life into The Assassin.

Clouds of Sils Maria. A slow-moving, very well-acted, beautifully made, but ultimately dull film about the emotional crisis of a respected film and stage actress named Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche. Enders is en route to Switzerland with her personal assistant (played by Kristin Stewart) when she learns that her mentor, a writer-director who put her on the map 20 years ago, has died. Maria is distraught, and rendered even more fragile when she’s faced with the possibility of doing a sequel to the original film, playing her character 20 years older and playing opposite a hot new actress (Chloe Grace Moretz). Binoche is terrific, and the film has a lot to say about fame and aging and relationships. But despite the great skill of director Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria is too stilted. When Bette Davis played an actress having a nervous breakdown in All About Eve, it was delightfully entertaining. Sils Maria feels enervated. And Kristen Stewart, who’s earned some recognition for her performance, still hasn’t found any emotions to convey other than annoyance. 

Creed. I found myself enjoying this Rocky reboot despite the fact that I hate boxing movies and have never seen a single Rocky picture. Sylvester Stallone is surprisingly good, now regulated to the position of trainer. (Stallone carries himself with gracious wit; his performance is surprisingly subtle and endearing.) The trainee is Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of Balboa’s rival-friend Apollo. Donnie is played by Michael B. Jordan, who carries the picture well. The movie isn’t particularly revolutionary, but it hits all the right beats, and director Ryan Coogler succeeds in making us care about the stakes. That’s more than I usually get out of a boxing movie. With Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad (who gets too little screen time as Donnie’s adopted mother), and Tony Bellew as Donnie’s rival.

Maps to the Stars. Probably the craziest movie I saw all year, starring Julianne Moore as the anti-Sils Maria Hollywood-diva-having-a-nervous-breakdown. She plays a wretched yet fragile actress whose personal assistant (Mia Wasikowska) is insane and obsessive, and once tried to kill her brother by setting their house on fire. (The assistant has some kind of psychological "connection" to her brother than drives her obsession.) This is David Cronenberg’s version of Birdman with more than a bit of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. Maps to the Stars is disturbing and weird and unsettling, and it may actually be my favorite Cronenberg movie in recent memory. But it’s not for everyone, especially when someone gets beaten to death with an Academy Award statuette. With John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, and Elijah Bird.

The Wolfpack. A strange, at times mesmerizing, but flawed documentary about a Peruvian recluse, his American wife, and their seven children (six boys and a girl) living in isolation in their Lower East Side apartment. The director, Crystal Moselle, inadvertently discovered the boys on one of their rare outings, and became fascinated with them. Despite having almost no interactions with the outside world, the boys developed a kind of social language based on the movies they voraciously watched and then imitated. The boys are tall and skinny with long black hair, and they dress like the thugs in Reservoir Dogs. The Wolfpack is both a disturbing movie about neglect and a strangely hopeful movie about the power of movies, but Moselle’s fascination with her subject keeps her too close to the material. The movie ignores some pretty big questions about the family’s less-than-healthy existence, and left me feeling distant rather than invested. 

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